Sunday, October 2, 2011

BKO: Bangkok Knockout (2010) Review

I know I often shouldn't, but damnitall the Thai action film industry is such a young and dangerous place, it becomes hard to resist when word spreads regarding another martial arts film seeking to outdo the bonecrushing precedents made by Panna Rittikrai, Tony Jaa and the like. The problem is that every time I do, it is more akin to a trip to an abusive relative who happens to cook delicious meals. Sure the food tastes good, but you know the shouting and humiliation aren't far away. Even after experiencing Rittikrai's previous films, the siren call continues to reach me despite my better judgment. And upon seeing that this time, we had a film comprised of not one martial arts master, but a class of nine young, potentially crazy stunties ready for their spotlight, the urge to oblige won yet again. And after watching 2010's BKO: Bangkok Knockout, a long-delayed moratorium may very well be in order.

BKO tells the tale of a young martial arts stunt team, having won a grueling competition to travel overseas to Hollywood, and their night of celebration ending horribly resulting in waking up the next morning to find themselves, along with fellow friends and party-goers, awake in a seemingly abandoned project filled with empty buildings and warehouses. Their vehicles, wallets and devices gone, they are now within a deadly game caught on camera as they struggle to survive while being stalked by hooded thugs. All this while sleazy international interests led by the cigar-smoking Mr. Snead (?) wager on the outcome of the ensuing matches. So in essence, this is a backwater, ensemble martial arts rendition of stories such as The Most Dangerous Game, The Running Man, etc. Except the impetus here is on not having one action hero, but several young guys, two girls, an elder uncle-type, and an unbaked Chris Tucker virus likely intended to be comic relief. Utilizing an impressive array of fighting styles including Muay Thai, Judo, Tae-kwondo, Ninja sword, and even Capoeira, the film is pretty much a loud succession of fight choreography set to a booming soundtrack, with little to no character.

And while this may not be of much concern to some, many may forget what helped some of the most notable names in these types of film become so ingrained in our collective minds. It certainly wasn't merely because of the life and limb  risked wholesale on screen, there is also a reason why Tony Jaa wasn't seen as much more than an impressive fighter. And when a film introduces this problem and multiplies it, what one has is an often confused, random action reel with no feeling of consequence, let alone feeling of any kind. In the end, the film is pretty numbing. The lack of character, reason, or rhyme bleeds the film dry of any potential impact the film might have had. So when the film makes attemmpts to pull the proverbial rug(s) from under us, it only serves to annoy, and borderline insult intelligences across the board.

Look, plot twists are fine. But the prime service of them is to not only advance the plot, but to often subvert what has come before, and hopefully expose neglected character elements planted earlier. To do them merely for the sake of doing them simply makes the film more arbitrary,  and sends a message that those involved either had no idea of what kind of story they were telling, or they simply did not care. I'm voting resounding for the latter as I have yet to mention the sheer number of times the film opts to give us convenient five-second "backstories" as specific "story" movements occur. No buildup toward them, just a pause, some swelling music, and an unexpected, almost completely random bit of previously unseen footage to fill us in on character motivations not seen until now. It's undeniably lazy, and it happens numerous times to almost irritating effect. Of course, this is a martial-arts free-for-all, but even in some lesser HK fare, there was often a simple sense of build bridging the fights together, leading us toward the big final brawl. And in the case of BKO, the stakes are so thin, and clumsily executed, they are near nonexistent. So when a number of double-crosses happen at the 75-minute mark, it is almost a completely deflating experience. All one can do is continue to watch in near apathetic rigor as amazing stunts continue to happen for almost no reason at all.

And that's the biggest tragedy of all. The action choreography in this film is astonishing to behold. Among the highlights are a cage fight that the old Battle Arena Toshinden game series could only have dreamed of, an encounter with a metal-faced, axe-wielding Jason clone (Burning axe!- Kane Hodder would have been proud.), motorcycle-fu, and even some stunning bodies pounding through a car chassis. It is clear that parties involved were going out of their way to take the Thai martial arts film to even more ridiculous heights. But with no clear characters, or solid story, it becomes very easy to be distracted away from all of it. All this clearly difficult, painful work, all for what amounts to zilch. I've watched my fair share of arcade game demos with more emotional involvement than this.

So in many ways, this exposes a phenomenon I have come to regard as audience disengagement. Films of this ilk almost exist either as a showcase for stuntmen, or merely as a test to see just how much certain viewers actually invest themselves in what they watch. The less one actually cares about what is happening on screen, the more enthusiasm is generated by the candy in between. While this is certainly something one can opt for given the material they are watching, there are limits inherent in the viewer. Unfortunately, I am one of those people that when the caring is clearly not there, I become less and less engaged in even the shiny things being dangled in front of me. It especially smarts when character traits are introduced, and payoffs are ignored. There is so much in the way of inconsistency here, that it feels less like a movie was even in mind during production, and rather like some kind of elaborate business card with flaming axes was the whole inspiration in a nutshell.

When just about anything can be visualized, to merely have this with no bridge to comprehension or humanity, what else is left? Noise and fury ad-nauseum. If that was on tonight's menu, I'd be out clubbing. In fact, there are so many other things one could be doing other than watching Bangkok Knockout. Hmmmm..laundry..

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